Excerpt from Bells, Bones and Binding Stones
The last rose-gold tinge of dawn faded overhead as Jacob walked side-by-side with Carrie down the path towards the river. There were only a few loose bands of fluffy clouds in the sky, and they would dissolve once the sun rose fully. Their way was cast in pale light, a light that drained the grass and earth of colour.
A night’s rest had done him good, even if it had been broken by another strange dream. At least he hadn’t had any dizzy spells this morning—yet. He wore shorts for the task ahead, and carried a towel under his arm. In his pocket, a heavy weight bobbed up and down.
Neither of them spoke. The night before, she told him that until he gave the stone up to the waters, he wasn’t to speak with anyone. Birdsong swelled around them, making up for their silence and filling the morning with life. Despite the hour, the temperature was mild. In his board shorts and sandals, he was grateful for this. Mild to him, anyway; the ends of her thermals stuck out from the sleeves of her cardigan, and she wore a parka on top of that as well.
The path cut through the trees lining the river’s banks. When he crossed under the boughs, the chittering chatter halted. He felt as though the eyes of every bird in these woods followed them as they walked by. There had been no birdsong from the foothills the night before—only the ruru. Although he itched to ask her what she made of this, he heeded her warning not to speak.
A gnarled willow marked the edge of the treeline. The path crooked around its base, dipping down to the riverbank. Through the willow’s trailing fingers, he could see the rocky shore and river beyond. Carrie nudged him gently forward.
When he left the trees, the birds resumed their singing.
It was easy for him to pick his way across, even though the ground wobbled and shifted underfoot with every step. There was a time he would have sprung from rock to rock, guided by intuition as much as recklessness.
Now he approached the water’s edge with trepidation, wary of a once-familiar friend. Would this really be enough to deal with the burden of the stone? He laid the towel on one of the large boulders near the river and took off his sandals. No point getting them wet. Carrie stood by the boulder and crossed her arms. Watched. Waited.
At the river’s first bite, he gasped. The water flowing around his feet was achingly cold. So close to the folding mountains, the water got only a little warmer than this, even in the late afternoon. At the height of summer, its harsh embrace was a relief; in the fall of autumn, it cut through his lingering sleepiness. His mind felt as clear as the water flowing around him. He took each step with care so as not to slip on the rocks, especially as his feet grew numb from the cold. Yet as he acclimated, the raw unyielding current became welcoming. Galvanizing.
He’d wanted to throw the stone into the river from the shore, but Carrie had firmly opposed that idea. It demanded more respect than that. Besides, she said the water would help to wash the stone’s mark from him. When the river was nearly up to his knees, he took the stone from his pocket.
Wisps of mist smouldered from its deep green surface and burnished bronze cradle in the pallid light. He couldn’t pretend to understand this strange object, nor did he want to. Even holding it ahead of him, he felt as if it were pulling him towards it. Drawing him in.
It should have unnerved him. Instead, he felt as if the stone belonged with him as much as he belonged with it. Its weight in his hand felt right, its shape made to fit his palm just so.
He waded forward, submerging himself to his waist. The frigid shock hit his groin. He delighted in it, in the full-bodied awareness it brought. Electrifying numbness spread through his lower body, yet every muscle and tendon crackled. He felt the contradiction in his body and recognised the same in the world around him. The river flowed raw and free: raw with death’s cold touch, raw with life’s vital force. This was why he needed to bear the stone into the river’s depths. It wouldn’t be enough to toss it away. He had to willingly give it to another—and they had to accept it.
And he had to trust in Carrie’s faith that the river would do so.
He held the stone aloft. It glinted sullenly in the morning light, no longer giving off tendrils of fog. A question rose in his throat, an urge to ask it where it came from.
He quelled it. He brought it closer, turning it over with both hands, feeling the etched lines on the bronze casing. Whatever it was, after the events of last night, he wanted nothing to do with it. He could not shake the feeling that so long as he kept it, his choices would be bound to it.
Then again, how many choices had he really made since moving back to Gladstone? How much of what he’d done was action rather than reaction? In the clarity of body brought on by the river’s coiling cold, he felt the truth laid bare. Much of what he was dealing with now had resulted from neither his action nor reaction, but inaction. Including, most recently, his running out of antidepressants. Would he let himself be bound now by choices made in the past, or would he find a new way forward?
He lowered the stone into the water, closed his eyes, and brought the words of the karakia he needed to speak to mind. Carrie taught him their meaning the night before, then gave him a copy to memorise. It was different to the one she’d spoken over the stone in the bowl, more suited to the task at hand. He ran through it in his head, recalling how she helped him breathe rhythm and life into his clipped pronunciation. Ali and Grace were both more confident with reo Māori than him, and he worried he’d mangle the karakia.
The exhilaration from the cold was fading. He had to finish this.
But when he opened his eyes and saw the stone, the words slipped away.
Had he seen this before? Done this before? Beneath the surface, the stone’s weight was barely noticeable, but it seemed to emanate a warm buzz in his hands. Why did he want to get rid of it already? He’d hardly begun to figure out how it worked, what it could do, what he could see through it, why it split the light of the world streaming through its centre, and he could see that splitting now, even in the half-light and with it held away from him he could see how the river shimmered as it moved, shimmered with life, shimmered with movement that was the same and not the same as the curling current that swirled around him, the swirling current that ran counter to the current of the river, the counter-current a sign of something that slumbered in the river’s depths, that should have been wide awake to meet him, that was wide awake but held in a stupor, that was stirred from its stupor in the presence of the stone, the stone that was and was not part of it, the stone that split the world in two, the stone that bound two—
He inhaled sharply.
Spoke the karakia.
His words rang clear as a bell across the shining silver stream.
He felt them rise from the marrow of his bones, and though he could not remember the explanation Carrie gave he knew implicitly that they entreated the river to lend him its protection, to guard dearly the thing he gave it now.
A dark ribbon slithered over his hands and lifted the stone from his grasp. The stone tumbled away, its green and glinting form already lost to the river’s roiling depths.
The water’s icy teeth sank into him. By the time he reached the shore, he was shivering violently.
She held the towel out to him. “Tūtae tara, why’d you go that far in?”
“Thought I had to.”
“Where’d you get that idea from?”
He paused his drying. Where had he got that idea from? She hadn’t told him to. “It felt right, I guess.” He patted himself down hurriedly, wrapped the towel around his waist, and strapped his sandals on. “Bloody hell, let’s get back to the house.”
“You catch a cold, you’d better tell your mother it was your own fault.”
“Doubt she’ll care, but Penny might if I’m sick next week.”
The chorus of birdsong did not falter as they passed through the grove. Carrie flicked her chin upwards. “Seems they don’t mind you anymore.”
“That’s a good thing, right?”
He glanced at her askance. “You know I don’t always get what you’re saying, right?”
“Āe. That’s why I’m teaching you.”
“Oh, okay.” He frowned. “You are?”
“Teaching by doing. I thought you’d know what that looked like from running a kitchen crew.”
“Huh. Yeah, I guess. But I don’t think I caught what you meant then.”
“Ehara ehara,” she said, emphatically. “I was agreeing with you. It’s a kīwaha, means something like ‘of course’ or ‘you bet.’”
He considered this. “Maybe I did get you.”
“I reckon you’ve picked up more than you think. Trust your intuition, Jacob.”
They were by now about halfway back to the houses. In the warming light of day, the feijoa tree off in the distance seemed like nothing more or less than a tree on a knoll. It was hard for him to believe that last night he’d huddled at its base, hiding from something he’d barely begun to accept was real. His terror compounded by a body in rebellion, every limb lagging behind the commands he gave. Unable to make his own way back to the house.
With a better night’s sleep behind him, he knew that his exhaustion the day before must have drastically worsened his withdrawal symptoms. Even if giving up the stone prevented the tipua from appearing again, he still needed to deal with those symptoms. At least he was reasonably sure they were separate issues now. He faced a choice: get his script renewed, or put up with the dizziness until his body readjusted. The latter would take weeks, and in the meantime a dizzy spell could strike him at an unsuspecting moment. So far, he’d avoided hurting himself. But what if one hit while he was cooking at work? Or riding his motorbike?
As they neared the houses, movement up on the hill near the storage pond caught his eye. A lone white ute drove away from the pond, following the road that led by their driveway then up the valley. He caught a glimpse of a dark blotchy shape on the ute’s side door before it passed behind a stand of trees.
That blotchy shape was familiar. His mind raced. Hadn’t he nearly collided with a ute like that a couple days ago, when Princess went missing? What was it doing back here? The road the ute followed led by their driveway. He could get another look—if he moved quickly.
He dropped the towel and ran around the fence line, leaving Carrie behind. By the time he reached the front of the fence, the ute had almost passed the driveway. He kept running. The ute sped past.
As it did, he saw the logo on its door: A&S.
Antony and Schneider.
The ute followed the road’s bend up the valley.
He slowed to a halt and watched the ute shrink into the distance. His heart pounded in his ears. It was a stretch. But this ute had been here the day Princess disappeared. And these past couple of weeks, they’d been around town a lot more often. What if there was more to it? What if Princess wasn’t missing, but stolen? She hadn’t been in Little Gladstone when he looked for her yesterday. There weren’t many other places a tiny dog could get to around here. He heard Carrie approaching and turned, ready to share his racing thoughts with her.
The edges of his vision darkened. Pressure thrummed in his head.
And then the pressure was gone. Lifted. He was light. Lighter than air. Drifting.
He felt the faint coming on and dropped to his knees to avoid falling face first. Even so, his vision went almost black for a moment. When he regained focus, he was looking at a pair of gumboots.
Carrie laid a hand on his shoulder. “Tūtae tara,” she said gently. “E tama e, running off like that on an empty stomach?”
He chuckled wearily. “I’ll be alright in a moment.”
“What did you see, anyway?”
“Ute, driving away from the storage pond.”
“Same one as a couple days ago. I’m sure of it.”
“Those contractors again, eh?” She sounded bemused. At him? He thought she’d be concerned. “Nosey bastards. Wonder what they’re sniffing around for.”
“Beats me.” He rose to his feet. “Let’s head back.”
Last time he suggested the A&S crew might have something to do with Princess going missing, she dismissed him out of hand. By her tone, he didn’t think her response would be much different now. But she’d already said what he needed to hear.
Trust his intuition.
The letters they’d received about the dam project came from A&S and the regional council. Maybe he ought to do some sniffing around their turf in return. He had to get there first. And that, unfortunately, meant accepting a harsh reality: as long as he was getting these dizzy spells, he wasn’t fit to ride his motorbike.
Vehicle-less. In Gladstone, a social death sentence. Better than being roadkill.
If he started on his antidepressants again, the dizzy spells would fade overnight, and he could keep riding the bike. Changing meds—or going off them—would require a doctor’s appointment. Renewing his script was simple. When he got home, he opened his laptop, logged in to his GP’s health management website, requested a refill of his antidepressants, and pressed submit.
It was done.
If he hadn’t clung so stubbornly to his three-month exit plan, the self-inflicted frustration of the last few days would have been minimal. Much to his surprise, it didn’t feel like defeat to accept that he was going to be in Gladstone for a while longer. It felt like progress.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Callum Knight has worked as a cleaner, barista, dishie, chef, and daily briefings editor. His rural fantasy novel draws on those experiences, and his experiences as kiritea Māori, to mash together the mundane and mystical in a small-town New Zealand setting.